Do Believers Have a Free Will? Why it matters...
She sat in front of me frustrated and afraid. “I can’t make my heart good enough,” she said. “I know Jesus says to trust Him and love Him, but I sin all the time.” I asked, “Do you trust Jesus to pay for all your sins on the cross?” “I don’t know,” the little girl answered. “I think I do. But I still sin. And sometimes I love my sin more than Jesus.” I said, “I know. I do too sometimes. But the Bible says that all believers keep on sinning. When God saves us, He doesn’t make us able to stop sinning completely. He doesn’t save us because we’re good, or because we’re able, but only because Jesus is good, and He is able. And the more we see and believe how great and good Jesus is, the more we will love Him. And the more we love Him, the more we will obey His commandments.”
The Bible’s teaching about the human will is immensely practical. It has been my experience that when people debate about the nature of free will, or discuss the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, the practical implications of the discussion are sometimes lost or minimized. But all of the Bible’s doctrines are food for our faith, given to strengthen us in the knowledge of Christ and in obedience to His good commandments.
Take the doctrine of the human will for example. Some people believe that we have the ability to choose to obey any of God’s commands at any time in our lives. That’s their definition of free will. They think that if God’s Word tells us to do something, then God must have given us the ability to do it. The command implies an ability to obey it. When God says to love Him with all of our hearts, they believe that means we are able to love Him with all of our hearts. When God says to keep all of His commandments, they believe that our wills have the ability to keep all of His commandments, if we would just choose to do so. If they’re right, then theoretically, we could all choose to be just like Jesus right now. We could, if we chose, simply become like Christ. It might be very hard, since we’ve built up so many bad habits over time, but we could do it. People who live their lives under this view of the human will often start to feel very much like the little girl I was speaking with in the example above. They wonder if they really love Jesus at all, since they sin so often. They think think that if they really love Jesus, then they should be able to do all that He commands, if they only exert enough effort to obey Him.
The problem with that way of understanding the human will is that the Bible teaches something very different. People who believe that they have free wills that are able to obey all of God’s commands are setting themselves up for tremendous failure, discouragement and doubt. The Apostle Paul, a mature believer, said, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). He went on to say, “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom 7:22-23). Even mature believers have two laws at war within them. They have the impulses of remaining and indwelling sin, and they have the godly desires of a new nature. The believer wants to obey all of God’s commandments, and he always grows in faithful obedience over time. But, sadly, the believer also wants to sin. Galatians 5:17 explains, “For the desires of the flesh are set against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Notice that the believer’s sinful desires “keep” him from “doing” God’s commands.
In no way, however, does a believer’s inability to obey all of God’s commands eliminate his responsibility to obey them. Believers are fully responsible to do everything God says. Our problem is that on this side of heaven, we are not yet able to do so. This means that believers will continue to sin. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And that means that we continually have reason to look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ. Our sin is evil. It is not good, but it is always a good opportunity to thank God for Christ. That was how the Apostle Paul dealt with his own remaining sin. Paul said, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 7:24-8:1). When we look upon Christ and see His goodness, love, mercy, and glory, our wills are strengthened, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but the Spirit” (Rom 8:4).
This biblical doctrine of the human will changes everything. It means that we live in tension. The little girl I spoke with needed to learn the Bible’s doctrine of the will, that it is not yet free to be perfect. And she needed to learn that her sins are an occasion for her to remember the great gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone will give her strength to walk in Christ’s merciful commandments more and more. We cannot be perfect, but we can learn to live by faith in Christ every day, one day at a time. J.C. Ryle wisely said, “Let us not expect too much from our own hearts here below. At our best we shall find in ourselves daily cause for humiliation, and discover that we are needy debtors to mercy and grace every hour. The more light we have, the more we shall see our own imperfection. Sinners we were when we began, sinners we shall find ourselves as we go on: renewed, pardoned, justified – yet sinners to the very last.”
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